He promised he was done and yet, here he comes again. Donnie Yen becomes the legendary Wing Chun master Ip Man one last time for the grand finale of the martial arts franchise that has made him an action superstar known the world over, and not just from die hard action fans. After three films (and one spin-off we’d rather forget) of varying quality stemming from a similar template of historical drama peppered with impressive martial set pieces, Ip Man 4: The Finale aims at carving the Ip Man legacy in the international records of cinematic arts by upping the stakes in terms of martial honour and racial politics. Neither approaches being particularly original for the series, the question that remains to be asked is: where does the action take us?
If you’ve seen the trailer, then you must remember Scott Adkins asking a defeated opponent if this is all there is to Chinese kung fu. A direct call back to a scene in Ip Man 2, where the Western boxing champion was asking the same question to a group of Chinese boxers he had just knocked to the ground. Those who are familiar with the franchise, or indeed Chinese martial arts movies in general, will find nothing new in The Finale. Dramatic exposition initially takes precedence over kinetic demonstrations as the last chapter in Ip Man’s story is taken to the United States. The master goes looking for a school to send his troublesome son to, hoping to teach him independence and the hardships of life.
The script lingers for a while on the interesting question of transmission and legacy. Seeking the help of established Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, Man is asked about his most famous student Bruce Lee, who by this time has founded his own club and written a book in English about Chinese martial arts. Seeing traditional kung fu as a cultural specificity the Chinese community must keep to itself at all costs, the immigrant masters and Ip Man (along with Lee, to a lesser extent) enter an ideological battle that will drive part of the narrative. The subject is fascinating and brings a welcome nuance to the writing, which otherwise goes on full overdrive in terms of racial schisms.
Not that this is surprising, since the appeal of the franchise for the Chinese audience has always been the definition of Chineseness in opposition to others, namely the Japanese and the Westerners. In both cases, Ip Man’s antagonists have always been broadly written characters with little to no human complexity to them. Which is only natural for films that work, first and foremost, as expressions of a nationalistic sentiment. Chinese nationalism, though, should not be confused with its Western counterpart, the former being a necessary process for working through various historical episodes of conquest and for exalting its people’s pride in their cultural uniqueness.
It should be noted, however, that since Ip Man 2, the franchise has managed to avoid entirely black and white depictions of racial relations by introducing a broader frame of reference containing positive characters, such as the chief of the Hong Kong police force or Scott Adkins’ character’s military officer, thus limiting its villainous stereotypes to the main antagonists.
Evidently more of a hagiography than a true-to-life historical epic, the Ip Man franchise will most probably be remembered for its balanced mix of drama and action, presenting a simple but deeply engaging protagonist who manages to preserve his humility under any circumstances. Donnie Yen, as a result, has grown as an actor and proved himself a force to be reckoned with on screen, whether he uses his fists or not. Far from his self-absorbed days of overconfident comic book heroism (see his third directorial effort, Ballistic Kiss), Yen has learned to put the overall narrative first and himself second, which confers a more solemn and universal dimension to the saga.
So yes, the politics of Ip Man 4 are very obvious, very on-the-nose and, in the end, very in line with everything that has come before. No one today seems to mind how exactly none of the Japanese could be redeemed in Ip Man, or how the vast majority of gweilos in Once Upon a Time in China – another nationalistic franchise – were portrayed as complete caricatures. A large number of Hong Kong action films from the 80s and 90s would end with a climatic battle involving moustache-twirling Western villains. It’s because these stereotypes serve a very explicit narrative purpose, and there should therefore be no reason for Asian action cinema enthusiasts to start being annoyed by them now.
Furthermore, Donnie Yen’s recent projects have demonstrated a willingness to tackle social and cultural questions that didn’t use to be so overtly prominent in his filmography. For instance, the gang attack on a Chinese teenager in Ip Man 4 is very reminiscent of similar themes from such films as Big Brother. Of all the subjects tackled in The Finale, Bruce Lee’s attempt at spreading cultural knowledge on a universal scale remains the most interesting one. Danny Chan, whose resemblance to Lee is uncanny, delivers a convincing and loving tribute of a performance to the action star. He is given the chance to shine in his own brawl/duel in the first half of the film, when karate students challenge kung fu practitioners to a street fight.
The scene is a prime example of the genre’s ability to create worlds within worlds, moments in time when the narrative looks like it is going to freeze to give way to a purely preformistic show (like in musicals), but which actually continue to develop the characters through their actions. This is what happens here: a karate fighter suddenly appears (almost magically, it seems) in an alleyway and summons Bruce Lee to a duel. Lee obliges, entering this partially cut off microcosm of martial display within which nothing exists except the fighters. The action, supervised by legendary choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, further explores Bruce’s cocky personality.
The fights remain grounded and make limited use of wires to enhance a few movements for the sake of spectacle, as was already the case in previous installments. Director Wilson Yip chooses to go for a formal, demonstrative and perfectly legible style of filming, making each punch, each kick and leap the focus of the audience’s attention. Action fans can delight in experiencing sequences that have rarely been so fluid, highlighting the sharpness of the moves, the clarity of the choreography. And yet, none of the set pieces, including the final duel between Donnie Yen and Scott Adkins, can reach the same heights as the best fights the series has to offer.
Remember the visceral 1-vs-10 brawl from part one, the sparring of the masters Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen in part 2, or the ultra-dynamic elevator/staircase fight from part 3? None of them are memorable solely for their fighters, but also because of the energetic camera work that translated a sense of urgency, of willingness to speak to our guts, rather than only our eyes. The shots were unstable yet precisely focused, the camera followed the fighters, the cranes were used to create aerial shots or tracking shots, and yet everything remained clear. This time, Wilson Yip trades immersion and urgency for academic formalism in what seems to be an attempt to offer the ultimate compilation of clean cinematic combat. There is a huge amount of skilled, masterful work in the film, but no risk-taking. Where does the action take us? To a safe place. The most aesthetically pleasing of them all, but a safe place nonetheless. In that sense, and others, Ip Man 4 does exactly what is expected of it, and nothing more.
That is not to say that action fans will not enjoy it. All the combatants deliver impressive performances, and the final sequence should satisfy those whose have been dreaming of a brutal Yen vs Adkins confrontation. Based on the tried and tested formula of karate vs kung fu paradigm (popularized by Bruce Lee’s films), Yuen distinguishes the fighters by giving Adkins directness and violence, while keeping the agility and capacity to improvise for Yen. Nothing new but seeing the brute yield to the cracking sound of his breaking ligaments will never not be delightful.
In an earlier scene, Ip Man spars with a Tai Chi master in his home, in a scene that resembles the one from the first instalment when outsiders challenged Man to a duel. It’s a meeting of the titans, and for a moment, the masters of Chinese martial arts become masters of the diegesis. They start to bend the laws of physics ever so slightly, and make the furniture fly and comply to their every whim. Only nature, in the form of an earthquake, can steer the film back to its narrative thread.
It should be noted that for all its writing issues, the film contains striking images that speak louder than a thousand lines of dialogues, courtesy of Wilson Yip. After the young Hartman is beaten by his military instructor for boldly suggesting the incorporation of kung fu to the US Army combat system, Scott Adkins’ Barton Geddes orders the wooden dummy burnt. It’s a beautiful picture, placing the destruction of Chinese heritage under the gaze of American closed-mindedness. That image alone would have sufficed, and they could have done away with all the redundant dialogue.
As the saga comes to an end (although the IpMansploitation might not be over, since other films dedicated to the master keep coming out every few months), it is interesting to note that the franchise has striven to advocate for a form of universal brotherhood and the sublimation of a common Chinese culture. The way Ip Man always falls victim to danger and must defend his honour presents an interesting contrast with the way Bruce Lee is seen as an enterprising man who seeks out the challenges himself. It’s the difference between the Chinese view of heroism, which arises from the people and usually out of necessity, and its Americanized, individualistic version. Yet the films cannot attain their goal but by framing Ip Man as the only kung fu practitioner able to defeat karate and Western fighters. Although at its heart, it tried to present Ip as “just a Chinese man” and thus an embodiment of the Chinese people, the mythological treatment of the character (compared to figures such as Wong Fei-hung) still conveys an unwanted sense of individual achievement. If the films take time to note that it’s not all Whites who are bad, then unfortunately, it also ends up looking like it’s not all Chinese who win the fight. Just Ip Man.
Despite an unsurprising script and a toned down direction, Ip Man 4: The Finale is a masterfully shot, designed, choreographed and performed martial arts drama that offers a satisfying conclusion to a saga that will no doubt remain a landmark in Chinese cinema for its uniting cultural appeal and its global reach. By staying true to the spirit of its predecessors, the film establishes itself as the most reliably competent and entertaining blockbuster of the season and offers his fighting stars the opportunity to end the decade on a high note.
Ip Man 4 – 27/12 (UK/IE); no planned release for French-speaking countries yet
Directed by Wilson Yip
With Donnie Yen, Scott Adkins, Danny Chan
Huge thanks to Shelby Stiner from Well GO USA for making this review possible.